ISLAMORADA -- Residents along the ocean side of the Old Highway in Upper Matecumbe Key are chafing at a village sewer system design feature, which, if implemented, would be likely to increase their cost by $10,000 or more.
"Arbitrary, discriminatory and self-serving," Joe Robinson, a resident of the area, told the Village Council at its Aug. 8 meeting. He was among a handful of people who live along the old road who expressed their grievances that night.
At issue is the plan of the village's sewer contractor, Layne, to service Upper Matecumbe's oceanfront with a low-pressure grinder pump system, rather than a vacuum sewer line. Layne is known locally as Reynolds Water Islamorada.
In an interview last week, Layne local project manager Wes Self said company engineers don't believe the vacuum station, to be located a bit north of the center of the 4.5 mile-long island at the Islander Resort, can provide enough pulling power to service the edges of Upper Matecumbe.
Meanwhile, said Tom Brzezinski of the engineering consultant Wade Trim, which the village is using to watchdog Layne's work, the difficulty in central Upper Matecumbe is more a matter of configuration. Many large homes there are located a long way back from the highway, leading to concerns that it would be difficult to connect a gravity line from the homes to a vacuum line on the street.
So instead, the approximately 90 homeowners are slated to be serviced by a low-pressure grinder pump system.
Approximately another 130 properties on Windley and Plantation keys are also to be serviced by a low-pressure system, Wastewater Program Manager Greg Tindle said. Such systems are almost certain to serve portions of Lower Matecumbe Key as well, but the engineering there has not been done.
"There is an incorrect notion that vacuum is good and low pressure is bad," Self said, explaining that either will work fine.
But if service isn't a big concern, price is. Residential property owners between Lower Matecumbe Key and central Plantation Key are paying the same village-issued sewer assessment of $6,400.
However, owners of properties that are to be serviced by the vacuum line are likely to only have to pay a private contractor somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000 extra for their hook-up to the street. Installing the grinder pumps, as the customers on the low-pressure system must do, can easily cost $10,000 to $20,000, or more.
Compounding the frustration of some is that Wade Trim has made a preliminary determination that central Upper Matecumbe could be serviced by a vacuum line. But Brzezinski said the firm is still awaiting hydraulic calculations from Layne in order to complete the analysis.
He said the village plans to take another look at whether the approximately 40 properties near the ocean between mile markers 83.3 and 80.9 could be converted to a vacuum system.
"We're looking to extend vacuum wherever we can without reducing the service that everybody has," he said, adding that ultimately the decision lies with Layne.
"It is their system to design and they have to do what is in the interest of the village."
Self estimated that even if it would work, changing from a low-pressure to a vacuum system in that central Upper Matecumbe area would cost the village an extra $400,000 to $500,000. And it would not resolve the inevitable concerns of the residents of other areas of the village where the vacuum line won't be run.
"The only fair way to do this is for the village to step in and pay for the grinders for everyone," he said.
Indeed, while Islamorada isn't helping defray the extra cost for properties that must install grinder pumps, other local sewer entities are.
The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, which is managing sewer projects for Monroe County, is paying the full cost of the installations, as well as handling grinder pump maintenance. The price of the pumps, therefore, is being borne by all sewer customers, Executive Director Kirk Zuelch said. While property owners still must pay for electrical hookups to their grinder pump, he expects that cost to be similar to the cost of hooking a home into a vacuum line.
The Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District is also installing grinder pumps on behalf of property owners, Chief Information Officer Paul Christian said. In exchange, those properties were levied an extra assessment of $3,300, far less than the extra cost that the owners of Islamorada's grinder pump properties can expect to pay.
Tindle said any reconsideration of how the village handles that matter would be the job of council members.
"That's really a philosophical question," he said. "People will probably always argue, whatever you come up with, it's not fair."